Homelessness is one of Santa Barbara’s most pervasive — and public — problems, and a diverse panel spoke on the issue Thursday night and about how the city can better address it.

More than 200 people packed the Fleischmann Auditorium at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History to hear the latest in the series “Townhall Conversations that Matter,” a set of public talks sponsored by the Santa Barbara Foundation. Thursday’s event was also sponsored by the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and the McCune Foundation.

Rob Pearson, executive director of the Housing Authority of the City of Santa Barbara; Santa Barbara Police Chief Cam Sanchez; Kathleen Baushke, executive director of Transition House; the Rev. Mark Asman of Trinity Episcopal Church; and Trey Lindle, senior manager of Paseo Nuevo, were all on hand to discuss the issue.

The panel was moderated by Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton, Nick Welsh of the Santa Barbara Independent and arbitration specialist Stan Roden.

Roden gave the introduction, in which he called homelessness “an extremely emotional issue.”

“Homelessness is not a new problem … and it’s not going away anytime soon,” he said.

Each of the panelists gave a two-minute introduction, starting with Pearson.

He said that during his 40 years working on economic justice issues, “things have never been worse,” in terms of the number of Americans living in poverty. He was one of many Thursday who encouraged the public not to paint all homeless people with the same brush.

Baushke was next, and said that in the past decade, addressing homelessness has moved beyond just offering “a hot meal and a bed.” She said people are now starting to look for the deeper causes of homelessness, such as a family in poverty or a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Lindle spoke about the effects he has seen on downtown businesses and the waterfront. He lamented that he was transferred to a job out of town for three years, and came back to Santa Barbara only to find many of the same homeless people still on the streets.

“I saw many of the same individuals on the street who were there when I left,” he said. “It appears we are making very little progress in reducing the overall numbers of homeless.”

Sanchez spoke about the Police Department’s approach.

“We really fall in the middle of this issue,” he said, adding that it isn’t against the law to be homeless, but local residents also have the right to call police if they see a disturbance. “Our job is to keep everyone safe. (Our officers) do so many things you never get to hear about.”

Asman also spoke.

“Too often this issue is used to divide us,” he said, adding that caring for the most vulnerable is central to many tenets of faith.

He commended the many outreach efforts taking place in faith community, including the warming centers that will open their doors Friday.

Welsh asked the first question of the panel. He recalled moving to Santa Barbara in the early 1980s, and panhandling was an issue even then.

“The names have changed, the faces have changed, but the story has stayed the same,” he said. “Are we doing any good?”

Pearson gave a local housing success story as an example. He said the El Carrillo Apartments, a 62-unit complex for people making the transition out of homelessness, has been an instrumental piece of the local puzzle.

“We’ve cracked the code of the housing element, but funding the supportive services is the issue,” he said.

Lindle said there continues to be a great need for transitional housing, and that the city should relax its codes to facilitate more spaces.

Bolton added that homelessness has been an issue he has covered in Santa Barbara County since the mid-1970s, and he asked Sanchez how crime rates compare from then to now.

One of the most interesting moments of the night came with Sanchez’s answer. He said homeless people commit less than a tenth of 1 percent of the city’s crime, but that doesn’t stop the calls from coming in.

“The calls for service are rising, because people don’t like how it looks,” he said.

During the past five years, about 11 percent of calls for service the Police Department gets are about the homeless or mentally ill community, according to Sanchez.

“We are spending a lot of resource time on that community,” he said, adding that deputies are not being taken away from regular beats because the City Council allowed him to overhire workers to address the issues of homelessness.

The panel was next asked about a new breed of homeless individuals cropping up along certain areas of State Street. They’re younger people, usually in their 20s, traveling through and who are more aggressive and have become a problem, according to Lindle.

“They’re more in your face, they’re vocal, they’re loud,” he said. “It’s becoming the face of what we see of homelessness downtown.”

Welsh also recalled a span of two years that saw about 80 homeless people die from various causes. When homeless people are discharged from the hospital, “there’s not a good place to go and heal,” he said before asking what plans are in the works.

Pearson said he and others have been in talks with Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, but that the organization is offering far less money than would be needed.

“They are offering 40 bucks per night per respite bed,” he said, when a $200-per-bed figure is more realistic. Healing people properly would be in the hospital’s interest, Pearson said, because “when you can find a decent respite environment, you can save the hospital money.”

Questions from the public were also fielded, including several about what can be done to help homeless children and families.

Baushke said Transition House has twice as many families on its waiting list than it can accommodate, but that the organization is working to house families through federal programs such as the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program, which helps families with security deposits for rentals to get them out of shelter.

Another question was directed toward Sanchez, asking him the point of giving citations if homeless people couldn’t pay.

Sanchez said the citation get people into the homeless court system.

“It costs them nothing to go in front of a judge, and the judge attempts to get them to want services,” he said.

Among the public speakers, Tamara Collingsbrook introduced herself as a newly homeless woman in Santa Barbara who ended up sleeping in her van after having trouble with two landlords. While truly destitute homeless individuals are easy to spot, she said, “it’s harder to recognize the homeless person who just needs a little extra help.”

Lindle said many of the homeless individuals who make their way into Paseo Nuevo don’t dig through trash cans or cause disruptions. Just like skateboarding isn’t allowed downtown, “we say this isn’t the appropriate place to do that,” he said, adding that homeless people should have another place to go.

“We need to provide an alternative,” he said.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at lcooper@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

— Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at lcooper@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.